US Woos Kazakhstan: Can the Vast Hydrocarbon Resources of the Caspian Region Provide an Alternative to Energy from the Middle East? Some of America's Leading Business Brains Seem to Think So. (Kazakhstan)

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While the world waited anxiously in September for a likely US attack on Baghdad, American troops were quietly taking up positions 1,800 miles to the north-east, in Kazakhstan. Based at Almaty International Airport, they are officially designated as part of the US-led war on terrorism and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. But their deployment heralds something far more significant: a continuing, and escalating, US presence in the heart of Central Asia, in the oil-rich regions of the Caspian Sea and in the "soft underbelly" of Russia. The "Great Game" played out in the 19th century by Britain and Russia appears to be well underway, once again, in the 21st, with the US replacing its imperial predecessor. And, once again, the people of the region appear to have little to gain, and everything to lose, in a geopolitical rivalry that is likely to have far reaching consequences for the Middle East as well as for Russia and Asia. The US servicemen and women will initially carry out civil engineering and set up telecommunications facilities at the airport which, in addition to being strategically located in the heartland of Central Asia, boasts runways and installations suitable to land military aircraft from NATO, as well as wide-bodied passenger and cargo jets from Europe, Russia and the Far East. They will complement the similar facilities already established by the US military at Bishkek's Manas International Airport in Kyrgyzstan, some 40 miles to the south west, as well as other new US deployments in Uzbekistan.

Prior to the deployment, Kazakhstan played host to US General Tommy Franks--the head of the US Central Command who led the war in Afghanistan. In comments to the press following his meetings with President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Defence Minister General Mukhtar Altynbayev in mid-August, he stressed that his visit was to say "thanks" to Kazakhstan for its assistance in the war on terrorism and in Afghanistan. But few observers will take this at face value. For starters, the Kazakhs have refused to send in their own troops to assist the coalition forces still engaged in combat in Afghanistan --a refusal that was re-confirmed by General Altynbayev in August. Airfields will also be of little help in detecting any renegade Al Qaeda members who may have crossed the porous borders and mountain passes leading from Afghanistan into southern Kazakhstan.

Nor is it likely, as first suggested by earlier US visitors such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, that the Kazakh facilities are merely for use in "emergencies." Too many American intelligence officials, diplomats and administration officials have been flying into Almaty and the capital, Astana, over the past several months for anyone to doubt that something major is up. Although there is no suggestion yet that the Kazakh facilities might be used in an operation aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein, the proximity of Almaty to the Caspian oil fields, the Black Sea and Iran, as well as Iraq, has set tongues wagging in European capitals, as well as in expatriate business circles throughout the region. So too have reports of top-level meetings between US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Kazakhstan's President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, at the UN environmental summit in South Africa in early September. As Powell told newsmen shortly before his departure, Kazkhstan was the US's main "strategic" partner in Central Asia, and Nazarbayev's opinion was "important." What seems clear is that the growing US military presence in the republic has far more to do with the Bush Administration's global ambitions than simply with providing back-up to international aid efforts in Afghanistan. …